A guest post by Helensville MP Chris Penk:
What to do when your government’s spinning out of control? Spin, of course.
I take a close look at the peculiarly Ardernesque response to recent events that was her speech on Sunday, entitled “Our Plan”.
- Uniquely unique:
Ardern tries making a silk purse from a sow’s ear from the very outset, describing her administration as “the most pure form of MMP government New Zealand has ever had”. The most interesting part of this statement is the phrase “most pure”. This is because it’s followed immediately by the PM stating that “we have never had a government quite like ours”. But is that a claim to fame or an admission of guilt?
The uniqueness of the current government is something that everyone can agree on – for better or worse – given the predominance of NZ First in relation to Labour and certainly the Greens. But note the way that Ardern touts that uniqueness as a virtue rather than a vice.
She’s relying on the general rule that you highlight something as “unique” when it is uniquely good, rather than the opposite. Consider how we use words such as “exceptional”, “incomparable”, “singular” and “trailblazing”. The strict meanings of these words are neutral but they’re positive in tone by default.
If something represents an exception then, logically speaking, it can be either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad … and yet to say that something is “exceptional”, without further qualification, is to indicate that it’s more than good. (Counter-examples, such as “peculiar” are relatively rare.)
So while it’s theoretically risky for Ardern to highlight the unprecedented nature of the current government – where “most pure” really means “least stable” in practice – she’s piggybacking on traditional ways of employing exceptionalism.
- Absurd analogy:
Perhaps the most embarrassing bit of the PM’s speech was one particular analogy, used to describe what is apparently a traditional way for governments to operate: “It’s a bit like a road trip that tells you who’s in the car, where you’ll be stopping, but doesn’t tell you where you’re going”.
Because it’s impossible to argue that a driver should usually have some idea of her destination, audience agreement is automatic to this point. While the comparison is a weak one, Ardern is trying to take us along for a ride of logical inevitability.
How often does it happen that you’re driving down the road and have absolutely no idea where you might end up, though? Who cruises down State Highway 1 and thinks they have an equal chance of taking a turnoff to Te Awamutu or Timbuctoo?
But whereas typing a place name in the GPS works every time for a road trip, executing government policy in a mature democracy is so much more complex that the comparison is facile. If the Prime Minister doesn’t realise that, either she’s a bit simple or thinks the rest of us are. Take your pick.
- Cheap conjuring:
My personal favourite is the cheap conjuring trick where our attention is deliberately diverted. Here’s the set-up: “Other MMP governments have had coalition agreements and confidence and supply agreements that set out specific policies they will progress. But rarely does that capture the big picture.”
Ardern’s speechwriter is hoping we’ll overlook the fact that the 2017 coalition agreement (like all such documents) actually did contain some “big picture” content, as well as some specifics. But the real point is that her government has already been devoting considerable time and energy to the kind of “big picture” discussion being wheeled out yet again on Sunday. That was true from the very start, with the government’s Speech from the Throne (again, like all such set pieces) having been dominated by the “big picture”.
The purpose is to conceal the PM’s sleight of hand in two respects.
First, it creates an impression that until this point the government has been delivering on detail. That must surely be the case, if higher level discussion is now needed by contrast, right? Ironically, it’s actually been devilish detail that’s been tripping up the government lately.
Second, justifying the need for a blue sky blueprint is designed to distract from coalition blues. Given the government’s recent difficulty in this regard (or “the Deputy Prime Minister”, to use his official title) the real point of the exercise is obvious.
- Trite truisms:
Then we see some classic spin is employed in this speech in the form of multiple truisms. The trick is get heads nodding along to statements that are so utterly uncontroversial that logical points are easily scored.
You can take your pick from multiple examples but I particularly liked the “set of challenges on the horizon that we can’t ignore”, as if anyone would argue that challenges should be ignored. Another good one was Ardern invoking the “whole new world we’re moving into”, as if the world has ever stood still. In case you missed your cue to nod along, she actually added in the very same sentence: “everyone knows that”. Yes, Prime Minister.
- Murky mandate:
Finally, check out the very subtle mandate creep:
“When you elected us, you didn’t just tell us to govern, you asked us to fix existing problems, anticipate emerging ones, and to make sure we weren’t caught off guard because we had done neither.”
Leaving aside the fact that those supposed extras are actually part of the standard definition of what it means “to govern”, this statement is reasonable enough if somewhat trite.
Then it gets interesting: “But there are things that were also a bit unspoken. An undercurrent if you will.”
Immediately we’ve gone from what the electors decided to “tell” the governing parties to things that were apparently – by Ardern’s own admission here – never told at all. An “unspoken” mandate is a very convenient thing.
The blank cheque is fully justified in the final analysis by this gem: “Perhaps I picked it up from the next generation of voters, or perhaps it was just the vibe of the thing. But we also decided that we would do things differently.”
See how the PM’s pivoted from electoral mandate to unilateral licence in just a few sentences? They’ve heard the voters (apparently) but “also decided” to do things differently, separately to that, as well. For linguistic purists, Ardern using “But” to start two sentences in quick succession is a dead giveaway of something tricky going on … in much the same way as you can only say “on the other hand” so many times before sounding evasive or indecisive.
Incidentally, those points I’ve made only cover Ardern’s preamble, rather than the 12 (relatively) substantive points in the speech. We could go on like this all day, with so much going on spin-wise. I’ve got better things to do (mind you, so should the PM and her government) so will leave it there. In any case, that kind of analysis really just confirms what anyone listening to the speech would have heard clearly enough for themselves: the predominance of spin over substance, as usual.
Chris sent this to me a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been swamped with (paid) work so only just got around to blogging it.